Finding hope after a funeral
Some parents who have lost kids to the record-breaking drug overdose crisis are finding ways to help their children’s friends, mired in their own addiction
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When drug overdose deaths began to decline in the United States a few years ago, many hoped the opioid crisis was starting to ebb. But discouraging new data show overdose deaths are at an all-time high: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported that for the 12 months ending in July 2020, 83,000 people died of drug overdoses, up from about 47,000 for the same period in 2015. Synthetic opioids drove the spike, according to the report.
Isolation during the coronavirus pandemic is partly to blame, but so is fentanyl, a dangerous opioid that dealers often mix into opioid pills or other drugs for a more potent high.
More than 80 times more powerful than morphine, a few grains of fentanyl can stop someone’s breathing.
When young adults stop breathing, their parents are often left behind. LeeAnn and Chris Cheeley of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, lost their son Zach to an opioid overdose in 2016, right before his 30th birthday. Colin McRae of Las Vegas, Nev., lost his 21-year-old son, Colin Warner McRae, to an overdose in 2015. During the pandemic, Colin’s neighbor and best friend, Matthew Butler, died at age 27 of a fentanyl-laced overdose. Almost all of Colin’s seven or eight closest friends have died of overdoses in recent years, his father said.
Relationships between parents and drug-addicted children often turn rocky. Children sometimes steal from their parents or lie repeatedly to hide a relapse. Sometimes parents have their own addiction, which harms the relationship with their children. And parents without a history of addiction struggle to understand their addicted children.
Parents also have complicated feelings after their children die from overdoses. Ken Butler, for example, while heartbroken, no longer lies awake each night worried he’ll get a call saying his son has overdosed.
Helplessly watching their children become addicted to the point of death is heart-wrenching for parents. But some have also found a sliver of hope. The stories don’t always end happily, but losing a child to drug addiction gives parents unique opportunities to help their kids’ friends struggling with their own addictions.
CHRIS AND LEEANN CHEELEY’S eldest son Zach required the most parenting energy of their seven children. When LeeAnn once told a young Zach not to chop down her tulips, he went and hacked them down. He started fires in the yard. As a teenager he looked for adventures that involved breaking the rules: jumping fences at concerts or taking a jet ski out in the dark. He landed in juvenile detention once and stirred trouble at family gatherings.
“He lived with a world of shame. … He knew he didn’t fit in with our family,” said LeeAnn. “He was different than everyone else, and God created him that way.” She believes her son had faith in God and treasures his copy of the New Testament, filled with his notes.
After college he taught English in Ukraine for a year, living through a revolution there. When he came back to Idaho, he didn’t feel he fit in and couldn’t hold down a job. He did mostly marijuana recreationally and as a way to calm the constant angst he lived with, LeeAnn said.
When his parents asked him to move out, he convinced them to let him live at their lake cabin in Idaho through the winter, without heat or running water. He burned all the furniture for fuel and brought water from the lake to flush the toilet. When his mom saw him around Thanksgiving, he looked “terrible”: He had chapped hands, chapped lips, and scabs; hadn’t showered; and wore dirty clothes.
“It’s not like you can stop it,” she said. “You can warn him.”
He checked into a psych ward and seemed to be doing better. Months later during a family dinner, Zach started ranting at his sister. Chris and LeeAnn wondered afterward if they could keep doing family dinners together. But that was the last time they saw him.
Zach had ordered through a Chinese supplier U-47700, an opioid much more powerful than morphine. At the time it was easy to order such drugs from China, but the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) now classifies U-47700 a Schedule 1 substance under tight control. Mexican cartels now flood the U.S. drug market with fentanyl and other opioids, according to a new DEA report.
Zach had tried smoking the drug, but it shut down his lungs and sent him into cardiac arrest. He died later at a hospital. Two people received his donated kidneys.
“He assured me nothing like this would ever happen,” LeeAnn said.
At the funeral, she met Zach’s drug-addicted friends. LeeAnn says her kids would describe her as “straight-laced”—in church since childhood, she never smoked a cigarette or marijuana—but she connected with Zach’s friends.
A little over a year later, one of them wrote LeeAnn from prison: His wife was about to get out of prison herself and needed help. When she was released, LeeAnn was waiting outside in her car. She hadn’t seen or talked to the woman since Zach’s funeral.
LeeAnn rolled down her car window and asked if she needed a ride. The young woman climbed in.
She lived with the Cheeleys for several months. “It was hard having her live with us. She was high-strung like Zach,” said LeeAnn. Struggling with mental health issues and a meth addiction, she required attention that sometimes left LeeAnn’s remaining teenager at home ignored. But LeeAnn and the woman became good friends.
She eventually disappeared after losing legal custody of her child in foster care. For months LeeAnn had a hard time reaching her or her husband because they switched cell phones constantly. Since then they’ve had occasional lunches together but not much else.
“I did feel like, for that three months, that God used me to do something,” said LeeAnn. “I don’t know.”
IN LAS VEGAS, NEV., were more restless parents. “I used to pray at night—the only way I would go to sleep is being alright with him dying,” said Colin McRae of his son Colin, who was addicted to opioids. “You’ve done everything, you’ve checked all the boxes, so it was just showing up for the other kids.”
McRae, who attends Alcoholics Anonymous and will celebrate 25 years sober this year, knew his son was experimenting with drugs in high school. So he brought him to AA meetings. He didn’t know the signs of heroin use, so he thought his son nodding off in meetings was just him being tired. As the years passed, his son’s friends who were using opiates started dying.
McRae wasn’t prepared for those young deaths from overdoses: Alcoholics “didn’t die so quick,” he said. He got sober at 34, and he sees how much harder it is for an 18-year-old dealing with an opioid addiction.
“I saw nobody try harder than those kids in those rooms to do the program,” he said about his son and his friends in the 12-step programs. “By God’s grace some of us guys stayed sober, and some of those kids didn’t.”
Throughout high school and until his death at age 21, Colin was in and out of rehab. McRae knew his own failings with alcohol, so it was “easy to forgive.” Their relationship remained intact even if his son stole from him, or when McRae cut him off from his bank account and kicked him out of the house.
“He knew every night that he was loved, and I hung my hat on that I guess,” said McRae.
The last year of his life, Colin had seven sober months, kept a job, and was helping others in recovery. He befriended another young man, Izzy, at Heroin Anonymous. Each day, Colin took Izzy to 12-step meetings or to have meals with others in recovery. That relationship helped Izzy stick with sobriety.
“A lot of people when you first get sober don’t have family support,” said Izzy. “You burn a lot of bridges, stealing money, borrowing money excessively, making yourself a fool in front of family, saying a lot of mean, terrible things. … I felt really shameful in the beginning, and that’s something that only the sober community can understand.”
Izzy and Colin eventually lived in the same sober living facility. One day Izzy and the others noticed that Colin hadn’t woken up and went to check on him. They found him dead, at age 21, after overdosing on a mix of heroin and cocaine.
COLLIN’S ACROSS-THE-STREET NEIGHBOR, Matthew Butler, died in late April 2020. Friends since they were toddlers, Matthew and Colin got into drugs and other trouble in high school and alternated periods of sobriety. Matthew’s dad, Ken Butler, is a recovering heroin addict himself. “He spent most of his adult life running from heroin,” he said about his son. “He kept trying to run away from it, and it kept getting him back.”
When Ken had been sober three years, he told Matthew, in his mid-20s, he could live with him, his wife, and their stepson. They could be sober together. Ken didn’t allow drugs in the house, but Matthew would still get high. So his dad would kick him out. The pattern continued. Once after his dad had kicked him out, Matthew overdosed on heroin, fentanyl, and other drugs.
Butler feels “guilty I couldn’t save him.” But he’ll celebrate four years of sobriety in April, a year after his son’s death. Any chance he gets, he speaks at AA and Heroin Anonymous group meetings. Helping “God’s kids,” as he calls other young people with addiction, is one way he felt he could stay sober.
That’s true for McRae too. McRae will drive Colin’s friends to detox or pick up others from rehab to have a root beer float and celebrate. One of Colin’s friends asked McRae to be his AA sponsor while he was in prison, so McRae called him every week and talked through the steps of AA recovery.
After Colin died, McRae hired Colin’s friend Izzy, recovering from heroin addiction, to work at his event-planning firm. Izzy worked there for two years and said it was his favorite job other than his current one. Izzy is married now, sober, and serving in the Marine Corps.
“He lost his son to the struggle, and I felt—I don’t know how to put it—it helped if I was still sober,” Izzy said of the McRaes. “Without both of them, I don’t want to say it would have been impossible to get sober, but they really helped me out.”
“It’s just a grace, right?” said McRae. “There is hope out there.”
—WORLD has updated this story to clarify the description of Zach Cheeley’s drug use.
A way for churches to help
One Harbor Church in Morehead City, N.C., has several ministries for opiate addicts, but it also has a relationship with local funeral homes. If the family of an overdose victim doesn’t have a church, can’t afford a funeral, or doesn’t have a venue, One Harbor will handle the funeral at no cost.
The church also has a bereavement team for such funerals: Lead Pastor Donnie Griggs said team members usually ask the family’s permission to speak to friends at the funeral struggling with addiction too. He’ll say, “The best way to honor your friend is to go get help, and we know it’s a fight, but we want to help you. We’ll take care of everything right now.” Several people have agreed to start rehab then and there.
Griggs is also a chaplain who responds to overdose calls with local emergency workers: “We had a major uptick,” Griggs said. “Tons of relapses, tons of overdoses. 2020 was brutal.”
When Ken Butler’s son Matthew died of an overdose in late April, he couldn’t find anywhere that would agree to do a funeral during the pandemic. One friend from AA knew of a church that agreed to host the funeral for free. Butler didn’t even attend that church, but he was so grateful he donated to it later. —E.B.
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